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How to Write a Synopsis for Your Book: A Guide for Fiction and Nonfiction Writers

If you plan to publish a work of fiction or non-fiction, writing a synopsis that summarizes the scope of your manuscript is inevitable.

Consider the typical submission process: First you write a query letter to agents or editors, and hopefully someone requests sample chapters along with a synopsis. Usually only after this step will authors be asked to submit the full manuscript.

What is a synopsis? 

Before we dive deep, let’s first define synopsis. 

Simply put, a synopsis is a summary of your fiction or nonfiction project. 

A synopsis will

  • have a beginning, middle and end
  • leave no plot questions unanswered
  • reflect the manuscript genre and tone
  • demonstrate your voice

That may seem like a lot to accomplish within a few pages, but you’re not reinventing the wheel, here.

What’s the purpose of a synopsis?

Agents and editors have certain expectations of what they’ll find in your project overview, so it’s best to stick with the tried and true elements that make up this standard document. Standard, yes, but never boring. 

After all, the purpose of the synopsis is to wow your reader (aka: an agent or editor) and compel them to want to read more.

While you’re aiming for a certain wow factor to demonstrate the saleable nature of your must-read book, you really can’t leave anyone on the edge of their seats with unanswered questions and unresolved endings.

Instead, the synopsis should fully frame your story, include major turning points, and—yes—share the story conclusion. Agents need to see the full story in a nutshell, from beginning to end, and see there’s a satisfying and appropriate resolution for readers.

Agents and editors also use the synopsis to determine how well a writer tells a story, inclusive of voice and style.

In some ways, you may do well to approach writing the synopsis as though this were a mini story in its own right.

In a synopsis, you won’t have space to reveal every action or emotion, or the entire cast of characters. Instead, focus on your main characters, what motivates them throughout the storyline and what conflicts they face along the way. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction manuscripts.

Is there a difference between writing a synopsis for fiction and nonfiction?

Writing a synopsis for fiction and nonfiction is fairly similar.

A novel synopsis is generally submitted along with the first few sample chapters, while a nonfiction synopsis is a necessary component of the overall nonfiction book proposal.

A nonfiction synopsis, or project overview, may be as short as a paragraph or may elaborate over a few pages.

Synopses for novels commonly range between one to three pages, though some genre editors may request a more detailed 10-15 page synopsis.

3 tips for writing an effective synopsis

Ready to write your synopsis? Follow these tips.

1. Know your market

In an interview with Writer’s Digest, Michael Larsen—literary agent and author of “How to Write a Book Proposal”—urges writers to be “an expert of the kind of book you’re writing.”

This advice not only applies to recognizing the length of a synopsis, but also the content scope.

Most writers find writing the synopsis that much easier once the manuscript is fully drafted. Only then can you fully know the story inside and out and be able to present your cast of characters and the story arc in a succinct, compelling manner.

2. Brevity is your friend 

Renowned publishing consultant Jane Friedman suggests crafting one single-spaced page “as your default, unless the submission guidelines ask for something longer.”

If you can focus your story down to one page, you’ll be able to adapt to alternative requests and add detail as necessary.

You’ll also be that much closer to understanding the key ingredients for an elevator pitch, a brief paragraph synopsis used when querying agents, pitching at conference one-on-ones, and in general conversation with industry pros.

If you can frame your book into a few clear engaging sentences, you’re demonstrating you have a hook, know your audience, and are prepared to market to readers.

3. The synopsis is about craft

So what do you include in a synopsis and what should you leave out?

  •   Keep it simple and keep it focused.
  •   Introduce your main characters and their role in the story.
  •   Bring their world to life and share critical turning points.
  •   Include how your characters evolve, for better or worse, throughout the story.
  •   Reveal how the story ends, always.

Essentially, you’ll address the who, what, why, and how of your story. Those ingredients should provide a basic story arc to frame your synopsis.

Your overall goal is to make the agent or editor care about your story, and to compel them to want to read the manuscript start to finish.

A strong synopsis will help you get published

As you finetune the synopsis, you’ll likely learn a few things about your own project: You’ll more clearly define pivotal points for your characters. You’ll strengthen your ability to succinctly talk about your project in person. And you’ll perhaps see themes and connections within your story you hadn’t fully appreciated until you zeroed in on the story arc in this way.

While the synopsis is truly about craft, and presenting your story to an agent or editor, keep in mind your future editor will have to go to bat for you at editorial meetings.

Your synopsis is often part of the presentation materials, used to convince an editorial board of your story’s merit. For that reason, it’s in your best interest to take your time, but give it all you’ve got.  

Photo via Dragon Images / Shutterstock 

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